The Wrong Lesson

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”-Pablo Picasso

One of my earliest memories involves me feeling bad about my artwork. Although it was three decades ago, I can recall the events and emotions quite vividly. I was in preschool and my teacher asked the class to draw a picture of what we liked to do with our parents at home. At this time in my life about the most exciting thing that ever happened was when my father would chase my brother and me around the house assuming the persona of “The Tickle Monster”. The adrenaline fueled laughter of this game made it an obvious choice. I remember considering how to depict the frantic chase. I had seen cartoons in which the character’s legs became a blur of ovals when they ran. Grabbing a marker I began the picture by vigorously creating a whirl of ovals. While I was satisfied with its effect, something was missing. I needed to convey the physical sensation of excitement. Considering my options, I determined that by slamming the tips of the crayola markers against the paper the resulting dots would get the idea across. Pleased with myself I indicated that I had finished. My kind teacher kneeled down next to me and asked the question early childhood educators are supposed to ask (because they have no clue what the mess of lines and dots represents), “what’s this a picture of?” I explained the scene to her and as a pathetic furrowed-brow smile appeared on her face she asked, “No people?” I tried to explain that we were moving too fast but she didn’t seem to understand. She must not have seen the same cartoon as me. Although not her intention, I couldn’t help feeling slightly ashamed as if I had done something wrong. Now to be fair, developmentally at age three the only marks a child is capable of making are lines and dots. More importantly, I was doing exactly the right thing. In fact, she was not an artist and knew nothing about art. Children naturally approach art in exactly the right way. They connect their marks and gestures with the memory of physical and emotional experience. Despite this, we spend the first part of our lives taking advice about art from people who have no clue what they’re talking about. Those who continue making art into adulthood eventually need to unlearn many things they have been taught along the way. The only difference between what an artist does and what a child does is that the artist has a larger knowledge base to pull from. They have more developed motor skills, a larger visual memory, and more understanding about how we perceive the world. The activity they engage in is the same. They both make decisions based on their experience of being alive in the world. Now, I suppose that this early experience may have motivated me to develop technical control and ability. Certainly the experience never left me and for many years I was never satisfied with the level of realism I was able to achieve. These days,however, I often find that I must remind myself to make choices based on how I experience the world instead of how I perceive it.